DALLAS -- I have no idea whether George W. Bush sniffed, inhaled or ingested some unlawful substance in what he calls his "irresponsible youth."
But Mr. Bush. the $38 Million Man destined to be the Republicans' 2000 nominee, has been given his first campaign test. He's flubbing it badly.
Over and over, Mr. Bush is dogged by the Big C question: "Have you ever used cocaine?"
Typically, last weekend on CNN, Mr. Bush brushed aside a cocaine query : "This game of trying to force me to prove a negative and chase these ugly, unsubstantiated rumors has got to stop."
Last Thursday, Mr. Bush asserted he hadn't done drugs in 25 years. Notice he still didn't say yes or no to the more specific question.
Mr. Bush is punching a straw man when campaign aides blame opponents, possibly Steve Forbes or Gary Bauer operators, for leaking cocaine gossip. The drug ruckus flared when the New York Daily News asked all 2000 Republicans if they'd used cocaine.
All said no -- except one who wouldn't answer. Guess who.
Sure, we're tolerant of baby-boomer politicians' misbehavior in their sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll kiddyhoods. Bill Clinton became a comic staple by admitting he used marijuana without inhaling. The Dems' 21100 contenders, Al Gore and Bill Bradley, have confessed to puffing the weed. No foul, no harm.
Cocaine, though, isn't so easy to ignore. It's the focus of Congress' multi-million-buck drug war. The crack version has made inner cities into war zones. In Gov. Bush's Texas, holding less than a gram can get you a long slammer term.
That's why Bush's self-righteous silence is not only phony but dangerous to his 2000 campaign.
First, if he keeps equivocating and evidence of cocaine use pops up during the campaign, the pent-up explosion could be disastrous.
Second, Mr. Bush has been open about the usual foibles, sex and booze. He says he's been faithful to wife Laura. He admits to being a heavy drinker who quit a dozen years ago.
Third, Mr. Bush. who defeated Gov. Ann Richards by painting her as squishy on crime, is proud that he's "Texas tough" on law and order. During his governorship, there have been a record 98 executions. He's built the biggest prison sys-tem in the United States. In Texas, 545,000 people are behind bars, on probation or parole. Many, of course, are punished for the drug Mr. Bush did or didn't use.
Fourth, in campaign speeches, Mr. Bush raises his right hand and declares, "When I take the oath, I'll promise to uphold the honor and dignity of the office." Crowds cheer this not-so-subtle dig at President Clinton's infamous sexcapade.
What goes around, comes around. The ferocious climate of the impeachment hearings -- War by Scandal -- lingers like a poisonous cloud that could choke the Republicans' 2000 wunderkind.
The code of John F. Kennedy's era -- "if it doesn't affect the job, don't print it" -- is dead forever. Maybe a statute of limitations as in Bob Dole's long-ago sex caper should apply. But in a potential president, whether Mr. Clinton's Gennifer Flowers episode or Mr. Bush's drug rumors, I think it should matter what the candidate tells us, how he handles the pressure.
So far George W. is botching his coke crisis.
You want advice, young George? Go ask daddy what to do.
My guess is he'd say, come clean. And do it fast.
Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.